Do you often think the following?: “Our department provides great support, services and/or information to other internal corporate functions, but they either don’t understand what we do or they don’t care!”

Many leaders of traditional staff functions like Finance, Legal and Human Resources, feel this way, as do heads of newer departments with names like “Health Economics Research” and “Commercial Support.” Very often, your department’s value is under-communicated and under-appreciated.

There are two recent trends that are making your job difficult. The first trend is the corporate obsession with reorganization. A McKinsey study discovered that companies reorganize “more often than they overhaul their websites (on average, every three years) or upgrade their computer systems (every three to five years).”

This means that your staff department’s duties, reporting relationships — maybe even your group’s entire existence — is likely either brand new or has recently changed significantly. In marketing terms, your department’s internal services are the equivalent of a new product launch.

The second trend is that your internal customers — the colleagues you support — are becoming more overwhelmed. They are exposed to 5,000 ads and 125 new emails, on average per day. These numbers are growing.

Answering: “What Is It That Your Department Does?”

It’s hard to break through this clutter. The human brain’s coping mechanisms mean that your internal constituents are probably making up their own minds about what your department does, and those thoughts may not be helpful to your cause. It’s no wonder so many new products fail — and so many new corporate functions are under-valued.

The clock is ticking until the next re-org. It’s time to think like an (internal) strategic marketer and use branding principles that proactively imprint your department’s role and strengths in the minds of your constituents. This will help cement your department’s place in the company for the long haul.

And it’s more straightforward than you think. Our book, called The Accidental Marketer, was written based on our 20-year history of helping inexperienced marketers quickly become proficient at external marketing. The principles and tools fully apply to internal marketing as well.

Effective strategic marketing isn’t just about communicating the value of an offer. It first seeks to create value for customers by understanding their needs. That’s why the first two (of three steps) below will be reasonably comfortable for you. You’ll realize that you should be doing them anyway.

The Three Steps to Internally Brand Your Department

1. Gain (Internal) Customer Feedback

In an article for Forbes, former BCG partner Grant Freeland says that most re-organizations are designed “…behind closed doors… while paying far too little attention to the strategy it’s intended to serve…” It’s likely that your department was launched with not enough input from the very internal customers it was intended to serve.

If you will just make the commitment to interview 5-10 key internal customers (e.g, from the other functions you serve) about their needs, you will learn many things. Their perceptions of what you are doing now. The things you could be doing for them but aren’t. Even their unreasonable expectations of you that can be addressed in the next two steps.

We call this “taking the cold shower of reality.” You will not like everything you hear. But you must hear it to know what you can proactively do about it. Because in marketing, perception is reality.

Here’s how to conduct these interviews: make a hypothesis of the top 5 internal needs that you think your department addresses. For an HR department, it might be things like “finding qualified candidates,” “clearly communicating policies”, “helping counsel poor performers”, etc. Show it to your interviewees while admitting that the list could be missing things they feel are important.

Ask the interviewee what you’ve missed. Write down all of the additional needs they specify. Then ask the interviewee to put the relevant needs in order of importance to them.

Time permitting, you can also ask them to give your department a 1-10 rating (10 is “perfect”) on how well you are delivering. But if you run out of time, rest assured you will have a great idea of what you are and aren’t doing well.

2. Specify Your “Do” and Your “Not Do”

When analyzing your interview results, you will find out:

  1. What you can do that your internal customers didn’t know about. These capabilities should be highlighted in your internal communication plan.
  2. High-priority internal customer needs that you already do well and should stay focused on.
  3. Things that they need you to improve on or even start doing.
  4. Low-value things that you should stop doing.
  5. Activities that they would like you to do that you absolutely cannot do.

Armed with these findings, you and your team can complete a robust prioritization of your activities. This will lead to refining your group’s overall charter. This one will be a more customer-focused version than the original because it was done collaboratively.

Ironically, defining your “not do” (#5 above) does more to cement understanding of your department’s mission than anything else. This is because so few staff departments are willing to say no. If you create this clear boundary — and provide helpful options (like training programs) to help your internal colleagues get these items done — you’ll see a significant improvement in the organization’s understanding and appreciation of what you can do.

3. Develop your Powerful, Consistent Elevator Speech

As you refine or re-define your department’s charter, you will want to internally publicize your new overall scope of services. You may choose from many different communication vehicles to deliver this information. These could include “lunch-and-learns”, webinars, one-on-ones with department heads, and more.

Underpinning all of this branding work is a tagline, or its internal marketing cousin, the elevator speech. This internal “commercial” is the consistent powerful message that you and your team deliver daily in all of your internal conversations.

This commercial must deliver a consistent message that addresses the important emotional needs of your internal audience. To develop this, you and your team should start with the high-priority internal needs that your department serves. Can you “ladder up” those needs to an emotional component that infuses your elevator speech?

For example, in the internal interview process (Step 1 above), an analytics support group was consistently asked to add their own strategic ideas to the data they were capturing for several corporate functions.

The analytics team decided to ladder up this need of adding strategic ideas to their data collection efforts by asking a key question: why was this need important to their internal constituents? The team realized that the emotional values their customers wanted from them were proactivity and insightfulness.

Thus, their tagline became “Proactively analyzing your critical data for insights that contribute to your strategy development process.” By living this tagline in their day-to-day work, they’ve become a highly-valued group in their organization.

Follow these three steps and you will find that, like the proactive and insightful analytics team, the appreciation for your department’s work will grow considerably. And when the next re-org inevitably happens, you’ll be on solid ground.

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